Life After Heroin: Two Ex-Junkies Pick Up a New Habit

A true story of addiction, friendship, and tattoos


Documentaries often live and die by their characters. Fortunately for this short, Needle Exchange, director Colm Quinn has captured some truly fantastic people on screen. Both former heroin addicts, Glenn and Spencer are best friends who—in a delightful twist of fate—have swapped one needle for another: smack for tattoos.

The film is honest and hilarious, with a sense of candor that short documentaries often lack. As Glenn and Spencer joke, chat, and playfully pick on one another, mumbling through their thick accents, it’s almost as if you’re watching the characters from an Irish version of Trainspotting 10 years later, the wild days long behind them. Quinn was connected to both Spencer and Glenn through his mother, who teaches an art class at a drug rehabilitation program in Dublin City Centre. Considering their mutual passion for the art of tattooing, they proved to be excellent pupils.

But, this isn’t just your standard inspirational tale of two guys who’ve managed to rebuild their lives back from the bottom up (though that thread is certainly there). As it’s revealed that Spencer is beginning to drift away from Glenn via a newfound romance, it quickly transitions into a portrait of the nature of friendship itself. After all, here are self-proclaimed best friends—two guys who have seen each other at their worst and most vulnerable—yet they are still unable to talk about their romantic feelings, about their personal lives outside of their needlework. It’s a fascinating examination of how strange and oddly complicated relationships can be. Quinn captures all of those nuanced, conflicting emotions in a brisk nine minutes.

The film has played at a series of venues on the festival circuit, snagging best short documentary honors from the Galway Film Fest. Quinn is both a documentary and narrative filmmaker, excelling at both. He relates, “I hope to keep working in drama and documentary. Strangely I find that working in one form can strengthen your ability in the other. Ultimately it's about creating the circumstances to capture something honest.”

He has just finished writing a narrative feature film called Man O’War, a dramedy about two teenage cousins who embark on an art project that shocks their local community. He hopes to shoot it in the coming year. On the documentary side, he’s currently working on a project called Elemenopy with Dublin-based poet Colm Keegan, who conducts poetry workshops for teenagers in schools hit by economic hardship.

For more work by Colm Quinn, follow him on Vimeo or Twitter.

Via Vimeo Staff Picks.

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Ivan Kander is a filmmaker, writer, video editor, and motion-graphic artist from Washington, D.C. He is also an assistant editor at the short-film curation site, Short of the Week. His personal site is

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